Why NYC must fix its mental health crisis

POLITICS: Why NYC must fix its mental health crisis

Another commuter was killed this past Monday, pushed in front of a subway train by an emotionally disturbed person.

Violent crime on the subway is up broadly, and the untreated mentally ill are often involved. How many more people will be hurt or killed before New York City and State officials act on both crime and mental illness?

The NYPD announced earlier Monday that hundreds more cops will be deployed to ensure subway security.

Carlton McPherson is led away by cops earlier in the week; he is suspected of pushing a man to his death on the No. 4 train. G.N.Miller/NYPost

Governor Hochul brought in the National Guard earlier this month.

In February, Mayor Adams added “upwards of over 1,000 uniformed officers into the transit system.” 

But cops alone won’t solve the problem. Two other things must happen: crime needs to be penalized, and the mental health system must begin to focus on the seriously mentally ill.

Police are already doing their part.

Officers are bringing people with clear signs of mental disturbance to jails and hospitals, but that’s where the accountability ends. NYPD Transit Chief Mike Kemper has said that those brought in are often back out “ . . . sometimes within hours.”

Ralph Webdale holds photos of his family, including sister Kendra, whose death in 1999 in a NY subway station at the hands of a mentally ill man inspired the law of her name. Stephen Yang

Like many other perpetrators, yesterday’s 24-year-old Carlton McPherson was reportedly mentally ill and has had multiple arrests, including for assault—but he was released on bond in January; this was after failing to show up for court twice.

Instead of subjecting police to endless cycles of action, often involving the same people, offenders and the mental health system should be held accountable after police have intervened.

Bail reform and legal discovery reform should be rolled back, and involuntary treatment for those displaying clear signs of mental impairment used in the rare cases it is needed.

Some advocates condemn any treatment that is not voluntary, regardless of whether it is patient-centered.

But for many with the most severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, accountability is a hallmark of successful programs. 

Take Kendra’s Law, the state’s law for court-mandated outpatient treatment designed for a very small number of individuals with serious mental illnesses, who have a history of repeat hospitalizations or arrests stemming from treatment non-compliance.

The law, passed in 1999, was implemented precisely to prevent subway pushings and other mental illness-related tragedies.

It promotes government accountability and equitable access to health care and has been shown to reduce violence and incarceration each by more than 70%. 

When there are too few consequences for breaking the law, by individuals mentally ill or not, some useful programs for connecting people to treatment can deteriorate.

Consider mental health and drug treatment courts, which allow offenders to trade a sentence for court-mandated treatment.

If the message is sent that crime isn’t punished, the incentive for potential participants to opt-in to these programs, which will hold them accountable, is entirely erased.

Not surprisingly, participation in drug and mental health courts has plummeted

Gov. Kathy Hochul recently brought in some 1,000 National Guard troops to patrol the city’s subway network. Getty Images

Mayor Adams and Gov. Hochul have been more focused on the seriously mentally ill than their respective predecessors.

Hochul’s push for greater inpatient psychiatric bed capacity, in particular, will help reduce the frequency that patients are treated — and then streeted — without being stabilized.

Bed capacity is necessary because, for people like McPherson, outpatient treatment may not provide enough oversight to stay stable and avoid violence. 

But the city and state still spend far too much taxpayer money on ineffective programs that deprioritize those with serious mental illness over the  “worried well” — folks who are most likely just having a bad day.

What’s likely to decrease anxiety for the average New Yorker and transit worker? Feeling like we can get on the subway without fear of being killed, pushed, stabbed, shot, raped, robbed, or otherwise assaulted.

New York Mayor Eric Adams is also beefing up subway security, having ordered hundreds more NYPD officers down to patrol NYC stations. Stephen Yang

Without enforcement of crime, from assaults to turn-style jumping, New Yorkers may stop caring if someone is mentally ill at all — they’ll want to see a perpetrator simply placed behind bars.

New Yorkers need to know the typical criminal will be held accountable, too.

To keep the public safe — including the mentally ill — we must have a criminal justice system that is, in fact, just. 

Carolyn D. Gorman is a Paulson Policy Analyst at the Manhattan Institute.

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